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Colombia is proof that democracy doesn't work

MEDELLIN (Colombia) • "It's a sad country," says a girl with long, copper-coloured hair and a dazed look as she puts her phone away while holding back tears. "Sad, indeed," answers a close-to-elderly man. And around them, in this Colombian plaza in Medellin, many could say the same.

There are moments when citizens come across something they don't recognise and that something turns out to be their country. That discovery, the horror of that discovery - that's the feeling so many Colombians had last Sunday night.

The plebiscite on the peace agreement had just concluded; among 13 million voters, No had prevailed by almost 54,000 votes, 50.2 per cent to 49.8 per cent. Four years of negotiations between the government and the guerillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or Farc, were going up in smoke. Bewilderment was taking over.

Seven days earlier, in contrast, everything was rejoicing and pomp, with nearly all the major polls predicting a big victory for the agreement. Someday, someone will speak about it as the greatest historical event that never took place: In Cartagena, peace with a capital P was being celebrated with a wealth of speeches, doves, the presence of kings, bishops, children and presidents. Decked out in white, everyone celebrated the signing of an agreement that will never come to pass.

It was the biggest mistake by a politician who has made a mountain of errors. President Juan Manuel Santos (who won the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday) could have made the agreement official without the need for a plebiscite, but he yielded to the temptation of obtaining, through this peace accord, the support of his fugitive voters. Former president Juan Domingo Peron, a very astute general who kept Argentina at his feet for half a century, was fond of saying: "The best is usually the enemy of the good."

Mr Santos didn't know that or didn't abide by it and now he's paying the price. And all of his citizens are likewise paying.

The Yes vote won in Bogota, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena and lost in the country's other big cities. Yes was also the winner by an overwhelming majority in areas most affected by the war: Choco, Cauca, Putumayo and Vaupes. In Bojaya, the site of the worst massacre carried out by Farc - in 2002, more than 100 people died inside a church that was bombed by the guerillas - the Yes for reconciliation won by 96 per cent.

The Colombian news website La Silla Vacia, citing the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation, reported that in 67 of the 81 municipalities most affected by the conflict, Yes was the winner.

Often, war is rejected by those who have experienced it; those who see it from afar can afford the luxury of wanting it to continue.

Many speak about Colombia these days as if it were a country severed in two. But what exists is a country divided into three. Those who voted Yes account for just over 19 per cent of the Colombian electorate; those who voted No also account for just over 19 per cent; those who did not come out to vote constitute more than 60 per cent of Colombians. And that is, in the long term, the biggest problem of all.

The agreement was hailed by some as an extraordinary achievement, the end of an interminable war, an opportunity for the country's development to take off. Others considered the agreement a cowardly concession, posing the danger of a "Castro-Chavismo" nation, as the double defeat of dishonour. But it was assumed that the plebiscite that would decide the issue would be a great moment for the Colombian people, their chance for true democracy to prevail. Yet 20 million Colombians did not vote.

There's a segment of the population in which decisions of this nature are debated, are deeply felt and are apparently acted upon. There are many others who have decided not to decide, and yet it is they who decided this referendum.

The mechanism of representation doesn't work. Democracy is in trouble. And not only in Colombia. Voting has become a burden or has been forgotten by so many. There are reasons for this, but there's a factor that confounds all of them: Those who elect not to elect do so because they don't think they are actually electing anything. Then they wash their hands of the matter and accept being left out. But inevitably, little by little, they will start looking for ways in which they can exert influence. From what we see, democracy is not one of those ways.

This is the problem in the long term. In the short term, the Colombian government will try to persuade Farc chiefs to reopen a negotiation aimed at getting them to accept terms inferior to the just-rejected peace deal. A disappointed Mr Santos says he is going to ask the No parties what they want. And everyone knows that, above all, they want some sort of punishment for the guerillas. How are the guerillas going to be persuaded to accept it?

"Let them be punished by serving jail terms, sir. And don't give them any money. I wake up at 4am every day in order to earn 689,000 pesos" - just a little over US$200 (S$278) - "and they were being paid for doing nothing, for committing crimes, because they're not going to give up vice just like that."

That's what I was told last Sunday by an employee at a gas station in Medellin, bastion of the No vote and of its hero, Mr Alvaro Uribe, the former president.

Resentment was one of the reasons for the No, but, as usual, fear was an even stronger one. How is it possible to accept that those who were always enemies will now become part of us?

No one knows what's coming next. The scenarios are opening up: new negotiations, new battles, new agreements or new failures. It's clear only that everyone has lost a lot of time, and that after last Sunday, an increasing number of Colombians do not understand other Colombians, and they don't understand the country they are living in.

NYTIMES

• Martín Caparros is a journalist based in Madrid. This article was translated by Sonia Berah from Spanish.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 16, 2016, with the headline 'Colombia is proof that democracy doesn't work'. Print Edition | Subscribe